A U.S. District Court judge gave the go-ahead Thursday to a lawsuit against a former Hamilton County deputy accused of baptizing a woman against her will after a 2019 traffic stop.
In addition to ruling that the suit against Daniel Wilkey, 28, may proceed, Tennessee Eastern District Court Judge Travis R. McDonough ruled that several aspects of the complaint against former deputy Jacob Goforth could not continue. Wilkey allegedly called Goforth to witness the baptism and Goforth recorded the incident on his cellphone.
While excluding Goforth from most complaints in the lawsuit, the judge did say the former deputy had failed to protect the woman from Wilkey's use of excessive force.
"Goforth is qualified for reasonable immunity and summary judgment on this claim," the judgment said. However, the ruling also found that Goforth had ample time to stop Wilkey from committing an unreasonable seizure.
"And, if anything, the truly bizarre nature of these facts should have put Goforth further on notice that the seizure was inappropriate," the judge wrote.
Goforth had said he believed the woman to not be under police custody because she arrived at Soddy Lake in her own vehicle, but the judge stressed in his ruling that the woman might not have thought she was free to go until she was baptized by Wilkey.
McDonough went on to say that "in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed he was not free to leave" or "would feel free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.
"There are genuine disputes of material fact concerning whether [the woman] was coerced into the baptism, whether she would have faced harsher penalties had she refused to be baptized, and whether Goforth should have known that [the woman] was being coerced," the judgment said.
The lawsuit against Wilkey and Goforth accused both men of excessive force, assault and intimidation, among other charges.
Ultimately "claims against [Goforth] individually for unreasonable search, failure to protect and render aid, negligence, battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress" were dismissed in the judgment.
On Wilkey's baptizing of the woman, McDonough said it violated the woman's choice of religion as well as violating the state's own duty to respect the persons' choice.
"If citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the state disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people," the ruling said. "Baptism of detainees by law-enforcement officers runs directly counter to the government's substantial interest in guaranteeing the free exercise of religion without government intervention. Any seizure for the purpose of conducting a baptism intruded upon [the woman's] liberty without furthering any government interest and was therefore unreasonable."
On Feb. 6, 2019, shortly after 9 p.m. Wilkey stopped the woman who was driving through the Soddy-Daisy area. After Wilkey asked her what she had in her car, the woman admitted to having a marijuana cigarette in her pack. Wilkey instructed her to exit her car and he searched her twice.
The woman claims Wilkey inappropriately touched her crotch, where he found a "marijuana roach." Wilkey told the woman that if she allowed him to baptize her, he would let her go with just a citation.
It was then that Wilkey called Goforth to witness the baptism.
Wilkey faces numerous lawsuits in several cases involving alleged excessive use of force, including the alleged unlawful body cavity search of a man while performing a traffic stop and the alleged groping of female minors. The requested damages in the lawsuits total around $11 million.
According to Hamilton County Court documents, Wilkey has been indicted on 44 charges, including six counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape, nine counts of official oppression, extortion, stalking and assault, among others.
Contact La Shawn Pagán at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.